Neil Heinen: This is a Madison collaboration not seen since Monona Terrace

Op-Ed: Three Reasons The Center for Black Excellence and Culture — which is the answer to "What can I do?" — deserves your support
09142021 Cbec View 2a Jla Architects
Courtesy illustration
An architectural rendering of The Center for Black Excellence and Culture

“What can I do?” As editorial director for WISC-TV and Madison Magazine for almost 30 years, that was the question I was asked most by viewers and readers. It came from a genuine desire to help, and uncertainty as to where to begin. In many cases the answer was easy. Madison is replete with networks for collecting and distributing resources for those who need them. Volunteers with time and/or money are always welcome. But when it came to issues of inequities and disparities, when the response required a change in one’s perspective and assumptions, the answers were often hard to find, and sometimes harder to accept. The Center for Black Excellence and Culture, the Rev. Dr. Alex Gee’s visionary Black-inspired and -led $36 million dollar project on Madison’s booming south side, is a beautiful answer to the question: “What can I do?” It will change this city as it is changing the people supporting it. And I am one of them.

When Gee asked me to help with this truly big idea, I found my perfect, first post-retirement gig, along with other fellow “failed retirees,” like former Fitchburg Mayor Frances Huntley-Cooper, former Dane County Executive Rick Phelps, former University of Wisconsin–Madison administrator Alan Fish, and a team of committed business and civic leaders inspired by Gee’s response to another answer to another question, this one to more than 700 Black Madisonians: “What do ‘we’ need?” (Just to be very clear, this is a totally different question than the oh-so-typical, white people asking each other “What do Black Madisonians need?” and the typical response of giving Black people what white people think they need.)

That answer was a place to gather, to celebrate, to be, within an environment designed and led by Black people. A place that is welcoming, enriching and healthy. A Center for Black Excellence and Culture. The project was instantly embraced by the broader — no, broadest — Black community, of which many members endorsed the concept, then made the initial down payment on its creation in the form of donations from more than 300 people to The Black Excellence Campaign. In a fashion both extraordinary and heartening, white advocates and partners have stepped up in support, forming a collaboration we’ve not seen since the building of Monona Terrace. The Greater Madison business community in particular has invested in this crucial building block of this city’s future. Now is the time for the broader community to do the same.

Here are reasons this project deserves, and requires, such support.

  • First, it is a transformational project that will change the Madison landscape, both physically and culturally. This is a big idea, on par with Monona Terrace, Overture Center for the Arts, the Capitol East District and other developments of the last 25 years that have come to define this place. With project partners like Lord Cultural Resources and its Black U.S. president — whose work includes the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture — the Center for Black Excellence and Culture will be unique in the nation.
  • Thus, second, the Center will change the narrative of Madison, Dane County, and Wisconsin as racially disparate, unequal and unwelcoming — the worst living environments in the country for Black people.
  • And finally, the Center for Black Excellence and Culture is an answer to “What can I do.” It is more than putting a Black Lives Matter sign on the lawn. It is definitely more than short-sighted, if well-intentioned, promises of more remedial courses, job training and restorative justice programs. And it is more than the expressions of sympathy following yet another killing of a Black person. It is honoring Black people in Madison, their heritages and cultures, their historic and ongoing contributions to our community, the excellence of their achievements, and a recognition that all of this will literally and demonstrably improve health outcomes; proof that yes, Black lives do matter.

That message is finally getting through. The Center for Black Excellence and Culture, and the issues demonstrating the need for it, are resonating deeply in the community. It is a deep play, with deep purposes, including our relationship to one another. This is a project for all of Madison, all of Dane County, all of Wisconsin. It is a project the rest of the country will point to as an example of what can be done. This is an opportunity to express your heart, your soul, your sense of justice and sheer humanity. Join me in helping build the Center for Black Excellence and Culture.

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